President Biden warmly welcomed Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy to the White House on Thursday, embracing her as a friend and casting aside initial doubts that her far-right party might prove to be troublesome for the United States.
Mr. Biden, who last fall publicly expressed concern that the rise of Ms. Meloni’s coalition signaled a retreat from democracy in Italy, expressed nothing but admiration for her during a meeting in the Oval Office. He singled out her support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, a position at odds with that of some of her coalition partners.
“We’ve become friends,” Mr. Biden told reporters with Ms. Meloni sitting by his side. He hailed the cooperation between the two nations, including on issues such as the economy and space. Speaking to her directly, he said he wanted to “compliment you on your very strong support in defending against Russian atrocities” and even pumped a fist to demonstrate that strength.
Ms. Meloni returned the compliments, speaking of the “deep friendship” between the two countries. These bonds, she said, “cross governments and remain solid regardless of their political colors,” alluding to their contrasting right and left ideologies. “We know who our friends are in times that are tough, and I think that Western nations have shown that they can rely on each other much” more “than some had believed.”
She added: “After the Russian aggression against Ukraine, for all together we decided to defend the international law, and I’m proud that Italy from the beginning played its part in it. We did it simply because supporting Ukraine means defending the peaceful coexistence of people and states everywhere in the world.”
She gently rebutted the notion that providing Ukraine more sophisticated arms could risk escalation with Russia, a concern Mr. Biden has voiced.
“Contrary to what some claim, Ukrainian resistance distances a world war, does not bring it closer as some say,” she said in English. “Those who believe in peace should be the first supporters of the Ukrainian cause.”
The convivial session represented a striking turn 10 months after Ms. Meloni’s coalition won the elections last fall. Just a few days after that vote, Mr. Biden cited it as a sign of worry for democracy. “You just saw what’s happened in Italy in that election,” he said during a riff on the dangers to democratic nations.
Ms. Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy, traces its roots to the neo-fascist factions that emerged after World War II. In forming a coalition government, Ms. Meloni became the first far-right nationalist to lead Italy since Benito Mussolini. To Mr. Biden’s chagrin, she seemed to be an Italian version of former President Donald J. Trump, having addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in the United States.
Like the former president, Ms. Meloni came to office with a long record of skepticism of Western alliances. She once wanted to get rid of the common euro currency. Tough on migration, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and “woke ideology,” she was seen as more aligned with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary than her counterparts in Germany and France. And while she personally took a hard line on Russia, her junior coalition partners, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, were friendlier toward Moscow.
But Ms. Meloni has shown that she is in charge when it comes to Ukraine, and Mr. Berlusconi, who was once so close to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that they would drink together, go skiing together and attend extreme fighting competitions together, died last month.
To Washington’s delight, Ms. Meloni has been drawing away from China. She has called it a “big mistake” for Italy to have joined China’s Belt and Road initiative, an international infrastructure cooperative that has been a primary means for Beijing to assert influence across the globe, and appears poised to withdraw, although neither she nor Mr. Biden made mention of it during their brief remarks before cameras Thursday.
Valbona Zeneli, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, said Western leaders misjudged Ms. Meloni after her election.
“Prime Minister Meloni’s actions have clearly demonstrated a values-based commitment to the trans-Atlantic relationship,” she said. “Italy is a strong partner for the U.S. on many issues, from its support for Ukraine and its active role in holding Russia accountable to its pragmatic defense industry cooperation.”
But Mr. Biden and Ms. Meloni are still not in line on domestic issues. Most notably, Ms. Meloni’s government has told Milan’s city government to stop registering both members of same-sex couples who have babies, recognizing only the biological parent. Parliament is considering a bill that would make pursuing children through surrogates, which is already illegal, a “universal crime” for Italians even in countries where it is legal, like the United States.
John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the president supported human rights around the world but indicated before the meeting on Thursday that Mr. Biden would limit his interactions with Ms. Meloni about such issues.
“The Italian people get to decide who their government is,” he said. “It’s a democracy and the president respects that.”